Rebecca Goldberg is a Senior Scientist at Environmental Defense in New York.


What is the problem with salmon aquaculture?

There are a number of problems with salmon farming, but the main one is that the farming is being done directly in coastal bays and estuaries, treating them as a dumping ground. salmon farming is basically akin to putting a feedlot in the water. Very large numbers of fish, a couple hundred thousand fish in any particular farm site, are put close together. All the waste from those fish and uneaten feed flow directly into coastal waters. The mantra of the salmon farming industry is a rather old fashioned one: dilution is the solution to pollution.

If you go back to the turn of the century, the way of dealing with air pollution was to build tall smoke stacks and get it up into the atmosphere and spread the smoke out. We didn't have to worry about it. That's the approach of the salmon farming industry. Put the farm into the water. The water will take salmon waste and dilute them and therefore they're not a problem. That's a rather old fashioned mentality in an era where we realize that our environment is not infinite, that the ocean is not infinite, and we need to treat it with care.

Is the solution getting them out of the coastal areas or is it more complicated than that?

Making salmon farming more sustainable means dealing with a number of problems caused by the industry. One of them is keeping the industry from causing water pollution. Another issue concerns the use of large quantities of wild caught fish as feed for salmon, that's simply not ecologically sustainable. Another issue is the very large numbers of farmed salmon that escape from salmon farms and survive and reproduce in natural waters. That's a big problem on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, because most of the salmon that are farmed are Atlantic salmon. Atlantic salmon doesn't belong in Pacific waters. It appears that they are beginning to establish populations in the Pacific and that those populations may threaten some native runs of salmon species.

Are there any threats to Atlantic salmon on the East Coast?

The escape of farmed salmon is a huge issue in Maine. The remaining runs of wild Atlantic salmon in Maine are actually on the federal endangered species list. So, there's a great attempt by the Federal Government to restore Atlantic salmon populations in wild rivers in Maine. There are so many salmon now escaping from salmon farms that they dwarf the remaining population of wild salmon. When the farmed and the wild salmon inter breed, they essentially genetically dumb down the wild salmon. It's sort of like breeding a mutt with a wolf and expecting that the offspring will be anything but a hybrid that isn't as fit to survive in the wild. So, the National Marine Fisheries Service has actually identified the escape of farmed salmon as one of the major impediments to restoring endangered wild salmon runs in Maine.

What else about aquaculture would you like to speak to?

One of the main rationales that is offered for aquaculture development is to supplement fish catches worldwide. We're not going to get more wild fish out of the ocean, stocks are collapsing, or at least in some cases, there's no more fish to get. So, the notion is that aquaculture will supplement marine fisheries. But, the fact is that if salmon farming depends on huge numbers of wild caught fish as inputs, salmon farming doesn't supplement wild fisheries. It depends on them.

Can you comment on food safety and this kind of aquaculture?

The Food and Drug Administration only has a couple legally enforceable standards for seafood safety, for mercury, and for PCBs. A lot of other toxins, the agency doesn't have a legally enforceable standard for, if they've even set any sort of standard at all. Moreover, most of our farmed salmon is imported and very little seafood, perhaps 2% gets inspected as it crosses the border. So, the American public has very little protection at the moment from imported seafood that might contain unsafe level of contaminants.

What about farmed salmon and food safety?

Farmed salmon is almost certainly higher in contaminants than wild salmon because it's fed a diet that's very high in fish oil. When toxins accumulate in the environment, they tend to accumulate in fats. Because farmed salmon have this high oil diet, and have a greater fat content than wild caught salmon, they tend to be more toxic.

Could you comment on consumer power?

Consumers have great potential to influence how the seafood industry conducts its business. At the moment, there is great alternative in the marketplace to farmed salmon. That is wild caught salmon from Alaska. The wild salmon fishery in Alaska is relatively well managed and consumers should feel quite comfortable buying salmon from Alaska as an alternative. It's an ecologically preferable alternative to farmed salmon.

Can you comment on how that's counterintuitive for many people?

Many consumers tend to automatically assume that just because a fish is farmed, it's environmentally preferable to wild caught fish. The truth is actually more complicated, and in the case of salmon, wild caught salmon from Alaska are environmentally much more preferable to farmed salmon for environmentally conscious consumers.